On 6 September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court decided in a landmark ruling that homosexuality was no longer illegal. How did gay life in India change since then?
Saattvic (33) is Indian, he is an actor – and he came out as gay in a blog post that went viral in India in 2017. Apart from having produced and directed several TV commercials and plays as well as starred in them, he took part in the major TV show Everest and in the Bollywood film Badmashiyan. He currently splits his time between consulting and the performing arts.
SPARTACUS talked to him about India’s developing gay scene, what it is like to be gay in Bollywood, queer friends who have committed suicide – and what gays should definitely avoid when they are on vacation in India.
You were born in Mumbai, you live in Delhi now. Where is the biggest difference between these cities?
I think the main difference is cultural. People in Mumbai are more open and friendlier to talk to, more approachable. But the LGBT-scenes in both cities are fairly well developed now, there are regular gay nights. And as far as I know, the administration in both cities has been very welcoming since the judgement by the Supreme Court in 2018.
You are talking about the ruling on 6 September 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled that homosexuality was no longer illegal. What has changed since then?
It has affected a lot of people from the middle and lower socio-economic classes. These are the people that have lived in a society where their parents are telling them that it’s wrong to be gay. Where they can’t go out and meet people for fear of someone snitching on them or for fear of the police.
While family pressure may still be real, at least now the fear of the police has vastly reduced. Moreover, for these people it is quite liberating to be able to go to gay parties, to meet other people without fear of retribution. That is the big change that has happened over here. I know there have been cases in the past where people have set up fake profiles on grindr. They operate like a gang: One person signs up, lures the gay person to a location and then the gang arrives. They beat them up and rob them. While such things still happen, the situation is much better because now you can go to the police and file cases for harassment without fear of being persecuted yourself.
Did the ruling have a direct impact on the gay scene in India? What is it like in the big cities now?
I don’t actually go out that often but I have been to really cool gay nights at the “Kitty Su” clubs in the “LaLit” chain of hotels in several cities across India. Keshav Suri, who inherited the “LaLit” chain is gay, and has been very influential in the LGBT community in India. He was also involved in the litigation that eventually led to the 6 September 2018 Supreme Court judgment. The various “Kitty Su” clubs host LGBT nights one day a week, and they are quite fun!
I went to the Delhi club recently, and the atmosphere was very, very different from what I remember back in the days when homosexuality was illegal. There was no sense that people were coming out to express some sort of repressed part of their identity. It felt really nice and normal and everyone was at peace. It was just a bunch of people out to have a good time with their friends. Gay clubs in India used to be much more like a meat market – the only place where you could openly express yourself. So the vibe and the feeling were very different – the ruling has had a great, great impact.
You came out publicly as a gay man in 2017. How did your family react when you came out to them?
My parents have been super cool about it right from day one. There is a video online about how my family reacted. I am very blessed to have the parents that I do.
I was 13 or 14 when they found out. Right from then there was never a question about them not accepting it or thinking it was wrong. It was never an issue. We had slight reservations about telling the distant relatives. But the way it has turned out they have all accepted it. They all know my partner and they all love him.
Coming out is not as easy for most Indian gay people as it was for you, is it?
Some people do lose a lot – my partner for instance. He is a Canadian citizen but he was born and raised in India. And his parents and brother are Canadian citizens too, but they spent the majority of their lives in India and still hold very traditional Indian views. When my partner came out to them, they basically refused to speak about it. His brother has since come around, and we have cordial relations, and we are hopeful that his parents will come around too, eventually, but not everyone is so lucky.
There is still a large amount of societal acceptance that needs to happen. I know people who have been beaten up and harassed for their flamboyant looks. And I know people who have committed suicide because of the depression that comes with a life spent just being alone and being told you are not normal.
I have at least two friends who have committed suicide.
All of that was very real. And even though it might have reduced now it is still a very real threat. But from what I make out, the younger generation is a lot more accepting and at ease with it than people who are about thirty years of age.
You went to Oxford University, lived in London for five years. Did it feel different – being gay in London?
I loved the freedom that came with living in London. If you are growing up in a society where what you feel is illegal, you have to constantly keep secrets and hide things from people. The whole thing is very difficult. So gay people in India grew up not socially well adjusted. You couldn’t be open about yourself. In India you just had two sorts of gay people. The one sort was completely stuck at the back of the closet and the second sort would be out and be militantly gay.
“Look at me, here is my rainbow!”
If you came out, because it was such a small community, you had to make it the whole of your identity. So, going to the UK, I was not entirely comfortable in my skin. In the UK I learned to accept that being gay was just another part of me. It didn’t define me. I think it was only in London that I felt completely at ease with myself.
What was the biggest difference to living as a gay man in India?
Previously I had come out in India and every time I tell someone it would be a massive shock. They were like “But you are not effeminate – how are you gay?” or “Have you seen a doctor?”. I actually used to quite enjoy surprising people with it – at some point I would just do this for fun. And then I went to Oxford. In my first year in Oxford I was acting in a play, in a student production. The tickets were not selling, so my director said: “Everyone needs to bring their boyfriends and their girlfriends to the play, we need to fill these seats! Saattvic, is your girlfriend coming?”
And I was like: “Well, actually I am gay.”And I expected that massive gasp. But without batting an eyelid he asked: “Fine, is your boyfriend coming?” When I said that I was single, he just stated “Dammit!” and moved on to the next person.
Even in London there were some neighborhoods were I wouldn’t hold hands in public. But it’s nowhere close to what happens here.
What is it like – being gay in Bollywood?
Everyone knows that there are a lot of gay people in the movie business and in the arts – still no one talks about it. When I came back from London in 2012, I went back into the closet. The thinking was that if the casting directors knew that you are gay, they would stereotype you and offer you the effeminate roles.
By 2017 I had found that there was a slow acceptance. Bollywood star Aamir Khan raised the LGBT-issues in an episode of his TV-series “Satyamev Jayate”. Then there was a TV-Show that did one episode on a transgender person who beat all odds and went on to become a principal of a college in Calcutta.
And of course there was this lovely movie “Kapoor & sons”. I think that was the first time you had LGBT-characters in a major movie where the character wasn’t just a stereotypical gay character. He was one of the main leading characters and just happened to be gay. It was a seismic shift.
How did the acting world change after the ruling?
When the ruling was issued – everything changed.Now we have a lot more movies with gay characters in them. Amazon prime and Netflix are becoming quite big in India, so there are a lot of web series now. In many of them you have a whole bunch of gay or bisexual characters. They are shown as they are, without any judgement, as complex characters rather than any stereotypical gay characters. Web series in India are mostly viewed by the socially and economically well-off people. But the TV-shows are viewed by the masses – and even in the TV-shows there are now a lot of LGBT-characters. Every second reality show has a gay contestant. The acting world has moved on very, very rapidly in the last seven years.
To what extent does the struggle for equality effect your work?
I am doing a piece on tolerance in the arts at the moment. Of course it has an LGBT element to it as well, but it is not purely about LGBT issues. I don’t like making work that is purely about LGBT issues. My belief is: the moment you start doing it, you get seen as “the other”.
I find it is a lot better with straight people to talk to them in a language they understand.
To show them work which appeals to a much broader sense of what they are concerned with and then also talk about LGBT issues on the side.
What would you suggest gays who want to spent their holidays in India?
I would say that it is better to keep to the higher end establishments. If you want to be open about your sexuality, book yourself 5-star hotels and generally don’t go to the small villages. If you are visiting India and want to experience gay life confine yourself to the big cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Calcutta and maybe Chennai. You will see a lot of interesting gay life in these cities.
In India more than in most places, it pays to have an LGBT friend in the city you are visiting. A lot of gay life is still built around private gay networks, so you want your friends to take you to a house party to really get a flavor of gay life here.
If you plan a trip through the country or a farm-stay as a gay couple, you have to present yourself as friends.